Today, gasoline remains king of the tank, despite the best efforts of scientists and researchers to move toward an era of hydrogen fuel cells or solar-powered vehicles. Alternative fuels are on the rise, but few people realize just how many alternative options there are. While some of these options may never prove viable, each of the following are being, or have been, considered as ways of powering the automobile.
Soybeans and French Fries
Soybeans, vegetable oil and animal fats can all be used to make a clean, nontoxic diesel fuel, which is perfect for the earth-conscious trucker.
Not only is this alternative fuel realistic, it is already in use. Because most diesel engines need little or no modifications in order to run on biodiesel fuel, the transition is virtually seamless. What's more is the fact that adding petroleum diesel to the mix makes a biodiesel blend that is still much better for the environment than straight petroleum, while also giving a little more kick than straight biodiesel.
While it may seem like it is impossible to generate enough of the sweepings from the basement in order to power something as large as a car, the reality is that the lumber industry generates thousands of tons of sawdust each year.
In Nigeria, a power plant is being built using the sawdust waste of nearby mills as its primary fuel. The plant is said to generate enough power to run the mills and still have enough left over to sell back to the national power company. And we already know it works in autos, because wood chips and sawdust have been called on to power cars in the past, using an add-on contraption called a wood gasifier. Who knows? If the stars align correctly, we could see the return of wood-powered cars at the next SEMA show — or maybe Home Depot.
While owning an automobile that runs on corn sounds like a proposition of the future, many people already own them and don't even know it.
E85 flex-fuel vehicles run on straight gasoline or E85 ethanol, which is a blend of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol, virtually all of which is derived from corn. While E85 is much cleaner, domestically produced and is renewable (when compared to foreign oil), it also is slightly less potent, more expensive to make and not yet widely available. While the future of automobile propulsion surely includes a good deal of ethanol, E85 is only practical for a small number of people at the moment.
Hippies rejoice, as powering a car with hemp is not only possible, it is also quite practical. It may prove to be more affordable, also.
Using the fermented oils of the hemp seeds and stalks to create a biodiesel fuel, this plant is easily grown and harvested (or so we're told), making it a cheap and efficient source of fuel. It's also possible to follow the corn blueprint and ferment the plant to make ethanol. The only problem with hemp-powered automobiles is that people may begin running their cars in their locked garages for a much different reason.
Waste Management's Altamont Landfill in California is not only one of the most state-of-the-art disposal facilities in the world, it is also home to one of the most renewable gas stations. That's because the landfill gas generated there is liquefied and purified, and (best part) used to fuel their fleet of trucks.
Producing up to 13,000 gallons of liquid gas per day, Waste Management is doing its share in the reduction of emissions as well as the recycling of stink, as it continues to be a global leader in the waste disposal/homemade fuel industry.
"Huh?" you say. "With air, there's no there, there." Try sticking your hand out the window at 70 mph on the freeway sometime. There's something there.
Wander into any tire shop and you'll hear air-powered impact wrenches in action, powered by compressed air fed thorough hoses. Air cars with onboard high-pressure compressed air storage tanks have been demonstrated since the 1920s. But getting them filled up is the trick, as the pressures involved are far higher than the sorts of tire-filling compressors we see at gas stations today. Still, the idea isn't dead yet and we may yet be grumbling about the corporate shortcomings of the "Big-Air" lobby.
We all know how hot a parked car can get, but so far a scant few cars have done much to harness this energy. All we've seen so far is a couple of solar-powered interior cooling fans. Today, the gap between SPF and MPG seems huge.
But that doesn't mean some serious effort isn't being put in. Down in Australia, where they have more sun than they know what to do with, there's this big solar-powered car race every year. The spatula-shaped cars that compete are about as weird as you can imagine, but they once said the same about the Wright Brothers' plane. Of course you can always put those solar panels on your house and plug an electric car into them, filling its battery when the sun shines. That's far less weird and far more doable.
Can that stinky green pond scum at your local swamp really power a car? If you get enough of it in one place and process it properly, the answer is yes.
Algal fuels, as they're called, can take the form of biodiesel, bioethanol and other words that start with "bio." Algae farmers (there's a job description) can use land that's not good enough for traditional agriculture and they can use ocean water and wastewater to grow it instead of the stuff we drink. They'll also use far less land than required by other crop-based sources, such as soybeans. Best of all, the stuff is biodegradable if spilled. So remember kids, Spyro Gyra isn't just the name of an '80s fusion jazz band; it could also be the fuel you dump into your diesel Jetta.
They may mess with your head and make you reach for the antibiotics, but bacteria are currently being tricked by scientists into making gasoline.
It's rather complicated and a little ways off, but the basic idea is to get carefully groomed microbes to, um, "create" what are called "renewable hydrocarbons." Smart microbiologists with multiple degrees are using genetic engineering to make the little guys' "output" chemically identical to crude oil drilled from the ground, but without all that pesky sulfur contamination or need for drilling. Once they can figure out how to make enough of it, it's off to an existing refinery to produce gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, tar and all the other petrochemicals we need and use today. Pretty sick, eh?
While all of these fuel sources could possibly run an automobile, only a handful can do so practically. Although the government and automotive industry continue to make strides toward fossil fuel replacements, the fact is that for the foreseeable future, gasoline remains the front-runner in the automotive fuel race.